What would you trade for some cypress mulch?

Posted June 21st, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Funk from the Swamp

I find it hard to believe that, post-Katrina, it is still possible to peddle cypress from the Gulf coast as cheap garden mulch. If you are equally incredulous, go see the video currently posted on the front page at the Gulf Restoration Network and sign a letter to those responsible. And read this op-ed by John Barry about other trade-offs being made in the Gulf, i.e., national economic benefits we all get at the expense of Louisiana and why coastal restoration efforts should be funded.

But there is another reason I am calling attention to the video. Eric Eckl, a communications consultant who writes a very helpful blog about Water Words that Work, points to this video as exemplary of a good communications strategy. I agree but have an additional reason why. Although the video doesn’t use the term “ecosystem services”, by emphasizing trade-offs between the use of cypress for garden mulch or for protection of the coast – and human lives, and by asking whether one would shred the Constitution for post-it notes, or melt the Liberty Bell for paper clips, it frames the issue in a way that is consistent with that concept.  One comment: a mulch boycott is all well and good for those who garden but, what the video doesn’t tell me is why cutting these cypress trees for mulch is even legal, i.e., who has the rights to control how the wetlands are used and why and what laws need to be changed.

 Ecosystem Services is essentially a frame that allows better connections to be made between ecosystems and human well-being, which was also the mission of the Millennium Ecosystem Asssessment (MA). But it was a laborious case to make because it requires a lot of site specific information to demonstrate the economic significance of what ecosystems produce, the trade-offs being made, and most importantly, what choices and response options are available.  So the result was a bit messy, and most of what was publicly conveyed were scary numbers about ecosystem degradation that didn’t come across as anything new, and was short on specific response options – and other valuable information that was buried in four thick technical reports (and since I was a lead author for a chapter in the report on policy responses, I know where it is all buried). So, so far, the MA has provided more of a framework for research and synthesis of scientific information than it has for communication. But as this framework begins to be used in the context of threats to real people and places, as is done in this video, I expect it will become stickier.

I have also been working with Island Press and the Sonoran Institute on a case study of the Colorado River Delta that uses the MA framework to develop future scenarios for the Delta that highlight trade-offs, and make a case for insuring the continued flow of water to the Delta, which I will say more about when the report is released. So stay tuned. In the meantime, for a fascinating read about the challenge of restoration in the entire Colorado River Basin, and the trade-offs involved,I strongly recommend a new book by Bob Adler, Restoring Colorado River Ecosystems: A Troubled Sense of Immensity. I will try to provide a more proper book review in a separate post but, a key point he makes that is relevant not only in the Colorado Basin, is that it is not just about restoring the river, but also about “restoring the process by which difficult, value-laden choices are made.”

One Response to “What would you trade for some cypress mulch?”

  1. Eric says:

    Hi Sylvia,
    Thanks for the link. I’ll explore this thoughtful blog more carefully.
    I wonder what would be the words that work to open up the concept of “ecosystem services” to a lay audience? Probably “balance of nature.” Worth mulling over.
    [that presumes that nature can be balanced – an idea that ecologists have moved away from, towards a more dynamic “non-equilibrium”, adaptive approach that brings all kinds of surprises. That is part of the reason for communication problems – the words that work only seem to work for existing preconceived notions. More to come… sst]

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